Tearful reunion after 56 years
IN an emotional moment Phyllis Whitsell came face-to-face with the nun whose love helped her overcome dark days in an orphanage.
The tears flowed when they brought out a walking aid for 98-yearold Sister Teresa. She said: “You can push me Phyllis, as I pushed you when you were a baby.”
It has been 56 years since the pair last met. And for Phyllis, now 60, it was another incredible twist in a journey that began when she was left at the Father Hudson Homes orphanage in Coleshill.
Phyllis, a nurse, had already tracked down her real mother – and cared for the alcoholic for nine years. In that time she never revealed to the woman, known in Balsall Heath’s red light district as Tipperary Mary, that she was her daughter. Phyllis has written a book with the help of Uxbridge Gazette columnist and friend Barbara Fisher, about the moving story called Finding Tipperary Mary.
Now she has tracked down the nun who showed her so much affection during the four years she was at the home. She was reunited with Sister Teresa at St Paul’s Convent, in Birmingham. Ironically, Phyllis, who cares for dementia patient, has for years worked within yards of the convent.
“She was so, so kind,” said Phyllis. “Some of the nuns were strict, but she had such a gentle side. She was very motherly. She had that motherly instinct.”
Phyllis’ memories of the nun with a heart of gold are crystal clear. Sister Teresa gave her a handkerchief that became a comfort-blanket for the vulnerable infant. She remembers the tears when it was lost. “Even now I have to sleep with a hankie under my pillow,” she said.
At their reunion, Sister Teresa promised to make her a new one.
“She would hold my hand,” said Phyllis, her voice breaking, “I remember how soft her hands were. It was so lovely to have this nun. As an orphan, you cling onto things other children take for granted. She told me she was always being told off by Mother Superior for being too soft with the children, but children only need love. If it was not for Sister Teresa, I would not have enjoyed the orphanage because it could be so regimented, but she took a shine to me.”
The meeting was arranged by a nun who had read Phyllis’ book. An invitation to visit the convent arrived at Phyllis’ home on her 60th birthday. “She is only a dot, but bright as a button,” said the author. “She sat me down and said she looked after lots of children, but some stood out. She took a shine to me.”
Phyllis’ story is the stuff of tear-jerking big screen productions. She was adopted at the age of four and told throughout her childhood that her biological mother Bridget Ryan had died of TB.
It was a fabricated story designed to shield the little girl from the truth. Bridget, known by the street-name Tipperary Mary, was a local nuisance and addicted to booze.
And she was very much alive.
“I had always been told my parents were dead after contracting TB,” says Phyllis. “I was instructed never to mention to anyone that I was adopted. I did confide in one school friend, but that resulted in threats of blackmail.
“It reinforced the idea that being adopted was shameful. Yet, still, throughout my childhood I was convinced, somehow, that my mother was alive. I told myself that one day, when I was old enough, I would track her down.”
Phyllis married, had children and found work at Dudley Road Hospital, Birmingham, but she was always driven by a desire to trace her mum. In the late 1970s, she began the search in earnest.
“After I was counselled by a social worker – to prepare me for what I might find – I was able to get my original birth certificate from Somerset House,” said Phyllis.
“My next port of call was the orphanage in Coleshill where I had been left as a baby. To my utter amazement, there was a member of staff who had been there since I was admitted at the age of eight months.
“She was reluctant to tell me much about my mother but it was clear that she disapproved of her. I had no idea why – I thought it was just because she had handed me over to the orphanage at such a young age.
“The more she tried to put me off, the more curious I became. Little did I know what I was going to uncover when I followed the trail with the help of social workers, probation officers and through other official channels.
“Eventually, I slipped under the radar and did my own detective work until one day I found myself – at long last – on Tipperary Mary’s doorstep.”
The woman was a far cry from the picture of a warm, gentle mother Phyllis had painted in her mind. Bridget was a chronic alcoholic, in bad physical shape, mentally unstable and abusive.
But there began the most remarkable love story. “My job as a nurse protected me,” said Phyllis. “My uniform protected me. My training made we warm to her vulnerability and I could hide behind that role.
“Although my heart went out to the damaged woman who turned out to be my mother, I knew I could never allow her to disrupt my own family.
“But nor could I turn my back on her. She wasn’t the fairytale figure I had imagined, but she was still my mother.”
Phyllis made an incredible decision.
“By then I was a district nurse,” she explained. “So I just – unofficially – added her to my rounds.
“I took her clean clothes, bathed her wounds and got her to talk about the five children she had given away, including me. The day she spoke affectionately of ‘little Phyllis’ and told me my birth date accurately was the best, and the worst, day of my life.”
Phyllis cared for her mother from 1981 to 1990 without once revealing she was the little girl Bridget had given away all those years ago.
It was only when Bridget died at the age of 74 that the ties that bound them were finally severed.
Finding Tipperary Mary, Already out in hardback, the new paperback edition will be published on July 28. Pre-order before then to receive free P&P in the UK from: http://www. mirrorcollection.co.uk/ products/details/search_ results/mary/